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Winds whip up dangerous 4,000-acre fire near Santa Barbara

Posted at 5:16 AM, Jun 17, 2016
GOLETA, Calif. -- Fueled by hot and dry weather, a raging 4,000-acre wildfire threatened homes west of Santa Barbara as crews struggled to corral flames that have scorched miles of brush and timber.
 
About 140 homes and ranches were considered at risk, where the Sherpa Fire was tearing through coastal canyons west of Santa Barbara, scorching an area that hadn't burned in 60 years. The blaze broke out after 3:20 p.m. Wednesday. It was 5 percent contained as of 6:40 a.m. Friday.  
The chaparral was "very dry, very dead-on-the-ground fuel for the fire," said Gina DePinto, communications manager for Santa Barbara County.
 
 
About 1,230 firefighters struggled to reach the narrow, brush-choked coastal canyons to attack the flames. A fleet of aircraft had better luck Thursday but nightfall brought a rise in gusty, erratic "sundowner" winds that had pushed the blaze Wednesday night.
 
An approximate 30-mile stretch of Highway 101 that had been closed Thursday was reopened Friday morning. Flames could be seen jumping the highway and burning in the median. 
 
Hundreds of people were forced from campgrounds. Charlie and Elizabeth Hatten spent the night at a shelter after a park ranger woke them as they camped at El Capitan State Beach.
 
"The flames looked so close. You couldn't see the moon anymore," Charlie Hatten told the Los Angeles Times.
 
The campgrounds remained closed but fire officials said nobody remained at the shelters Thursday. Mandatory evacuations were still in effect for the areas of Refugio Canyon, Las Flores, Venadito, El Capitan Campground, El Capitan State Park, Ocean Mesa at El Capitan State Park and Refugio Campground.
 
Meanwhile, in central New Mexico, a blaze that began Tuesday, spread across 16,000 acres by Thursday night, forcing evacuations and burning several buildings along the way. The fire blackened 25 square miles and blanketed Albuquerque, the state's largest city, in a thick haze.
 
The fire was expected to continue moving east and northeast and posed an imminent threat to the small community of Chilili, the Tajique area, and the Ponderosa Pine residential area, according to U.S. Forest Service officials.
 
New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez took to the air in a National Guard helicopter on Thursday to look over the devastation, according to a report in the Albuquerque Journal.
 
"This is a serious fire," Martinez said later during a news conference and an Estancia school, where the command center for the firefighters is located. "We want to make sure New Mexicans understand that."
 
Extremely hot and dry weather was forecast to continue into the weekend, although gusty winds should ease, fire officials said.
 
In east-central Arizona, progress was made against a 12-square-mile blaze that broke out Wednesday south of Show Low.
 
"The winds weren't as bad, and the back-burns did exactly what we wanted them to do," Navajo County Sheriff KC Clark said at a Thursday afternoon news conference.
 
However, a small community in Navajo County remained evacuated and thousands of other residents were told to be prepared in case they had to leave.
 
In Nevada, a 300-acre Reno brush fire that threatened dozens of homes was 75 percent contained and crews were mostly in mop-up mode Thursday evening.
 
Blazes also threatened homes in Utah, where a firefighter hurt his head in a fall.
 
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Weber and Associated Press writer John Antczak reported from Los Angeles.